He was “dead man walking.” After only four months on the job the decision to replace the new Vice President of Marketing had been made. A mismanaged photo shoot and botched seasonal promotion left his bosses convinced he lacked judgment and essential skills. They began looking through him when he spoke.
The bosses wanted him out immediately but decided to wait three weeks until people he recruited were settled in and productive. Important work needed to be done. Although the vice president thought he was still on his corporate honeymoon, he was actually on executive death row.
In the view of the bosses, the V.P.’s only accomplishment was attracting three new managers with promise, each in the process of joining the firm. One was a proven marketer making a cross-town move for a better title and more pay. A second planned to begin as soon as her teen-age son was settled in his new school. The third was flying in Thursday to meet new associates prior to finalizing his deal. This would be his second post-MBA assignment. He saw it as career-building important and was asking all the right questions. Prominent in his thinking was mentoring by this “very savvy” V.P. and getting in on the ground floor of the elite marketing group being built.
Only a few insiders had been told, but others with keen eyes had figured out what the V.P. had not. The guy waiting for the coffin is always the last to connect the dots. Years of observing the dynamics of corporate success and covering backsides teach astute employees to recognize when someone is being treated as a ghost.
The looming termination complicated life for all involved. Those in the know or just suspecting dealt with marketing topics with superficial politeness but no real enthusiasm. What else is there to do when you know that whatever’s decided is likely to be undone? To avoid wasting time those in the know surfed marketing department e-mails, deleting most without responding. Knowledgeable bosses substituted underlings to represent them in marketing-topic meetings but provided little in the way of briefing. When subordinates asked for more information, they were merely told that their participation would be good training. They quickly got the message – “look plausible, ask questions, but don’t commit to anything.” Their job was to look relevant discussing topics that were not.
To the surprise of clued-in executives, interacting with the newly recruited managers turned out to be far more challenging than dealing with the about-to- exit V.P. The bosses would need their trust and respect after the V.P. departed. But what do you say to a young person sharing his excitement about working with an executive whom you have decided is incompetent and should be fired? How do you establish trust while perpetuating an illusion? How do you earn respect from subordinates you are asking to participate in time-wasting meetings? How do you maintain self-respect when sending sham messages to a well-meaning executive being buried in an avalanche of inauthentic behavior? And what do you say to everyone else who, after the coffin is shut, will think you deliberately misled them? While this situation is unique, there’s little unique about the challenges involved. In one form or another, it’s what people face every day at work.
his book is for people who wonder what it’s going to take to get rid of the constant deception and obfuscation that, at the end of the work day, leaves them feeling beaten up, confused and even a little dirty. It is also for people greeting them at home wondering “What’s going on there that takes such a toll?” Pressed for an answer, many explain “it’s all that bullsh*t I had to endure.” They blame abstractions such as “the system,” “the incompetence around me,” “too much bureaucracy” - - at a loss to pin-point a precise cause. Even people who disdain deception find themselves involved. They too speak bullsh*t at work.
Being misled and misleading others is part of the daily routine. It flows naturally, just as we saw in the opening saga of the doomed Vice-President of Marketing. Expecting this, people become disheartened. Few can envision finding a job where they can relax and straight-forwardly say what they think. People instinctively hunger for a culture of straight-talk, even as they are hard-pressed to say what would make “all that bullsh*t” go away. I’m not just talking about other people. It’s a scourge that affects us all.
Straight-talk at work! There isn’t much we crave more yet get less of. We want others to say candidly what they think, be forthcoming about what they have done and be upfront about what they are planning. We want honest reactions to what we propose; we want to believe our views are receiving serious consideration; we want to know when others are no longer listening with open minds; we want to hear the real reason someone resists doing what we have asked -- we want to know where we stand. Instead, what we mostly get is bullsh*t. In spoken words; in actions taken. Worst of all, the bullsh*t sometimes comes so disguised we don’t even recognize it as such.
There are, though, special moments when others tell it to us straight -- even when their views differ from ours. They refrain from euphemism, don’t spin their words, forthrightly relate all relevant facts, share their feelings and may even go so far as to reveal what they personally have at stake. In other words, there are times -- albeit rare ones -- when others tell us the naked truth as they know it. We love it when others don’t obscure what they mean, mislead us or lull us into thinking their agendas include our interests unless they actually do. We treasure these moments.
Decades of research and consulting with professionals and managers have convinced me that straight-talk at work is possible. But it requires more than luck and willing people. Straight-talk is the product of thoughtful caring relationships built upon trust by people committed to looking out for one another’s success. It entails much more than let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may candor and blunt start-to-finish honesty. And, it’s not brought about by cat-and-mouse, testing-the-waters conversation that evolves into a tell-it-straight, see if you can get the other person to reciprocate discussion. Straight-talk is a caring, other-sensitive, candor-on-demand, loyalty-producing, intimacy-escalating, give-and-take relationship leading to enhanced personal and organizational productivity.
Compounding the difficulties of getting straight-talk at work is the ever-present need to pretend that “straight-talk” is already taking place. We know it isn’t but the rules of the corporate-speak force us to behave as if it were ubiquitous. Everyone needs others to think they’re telling “it” perfectly straight. No one ever begins a conversation by saying, “Listen carefully while I bullsh*t you.” People strike a sincere pose, look you squarely in the eyes and then deliver a stream of self-serving verbiage designed to get your support for their agendas. It’s business as usual.
Usually what we’re getting is so obvious there’s little need to allege deception. It’s corporately correct advocacy carefully composed to appear logical, rational and objective. Our role is to look friendly, nod appropriately and, when possible, feign sufficient agreement to get away asking the questions that allow us to decide the impact their proposal will have on us. If we conclude what’s advocated is not sufficiently self-advantageous, we push back, citing the proposal’s failure to serve the organization, never its failure to benefit us. In other words, we block other people’s bullsh*t with some of our own.
Everyone knows that succeeding at work requires us to spin what we say, withhold some of what we know and pretend to believe things that we know to be untrue. At work we’re constantly challenged to trust what others tell us. But at the end of the day, we know that all communications are designed, first and foremost, to advance the self-interested agendas of the communicators. That may sound cynical, but it is also true. Like every other aspect of life, the world at work is driven by self-interests. Straight-talk begins by facing up to the fact that ours is a self-interested world.
No question about it. Getting straight-talk at work is often an arduous task, requiring skill, sensitivity and judgment. When a person wanting straight-talk doesn’t see us reciprocating, even when our intention is to tell it straight, we can count on the conversation going south. We all know the drill and inevitable outcome. Bullsh*t perceived leads to bullsh*t dispensed.
On the other hand, straight-talk met with straight-talk has the potential to create invaluable bonds, even when our viewpoint doesn’t prevail. How can we win when we lose? Because straight-talk reveals the other person’s self-interests, and such a revelation can produce understanding and respect, no matter whose position prevails. Sensing our respect, others become friendlier and more accommodating, eager to “purchase” additional good will and support. It’s a fact that being known as a straight-talker is a form of interpersonal currency today.
Taken from an organizational perspective, there’s no greater contribution to operational effectiveness and success than conversations in which people with conflicting viewpoints discuss their differences forthrightly. In fact, decades of researching how managers function have convinced me that straight-talk leading to trusting relationships is the quintessential management tool. With straight-talk, mistakes in planning and action can be quickly rectified, and people -- even those with marked limitations -- are able to lead more effectively. With straight-talk, missteps can be studied and corrected without blame being laid or inadequacy implied, saving all the energy typically squandered on those pointless activities.
Without straight-talk even the best-laid plans and most expertly executed actions often fail to have the desired effects. Instead, groups splinter and individuals become jurisdictional, image-conscious, self-protective and competitive with their teammates, hide their mistakes, fail to self-correct, persist in dissembling -- the list is endless. From the organization’s standpoint, straight-talk and the trusting relationships it creates is an invaluable asset that ought to be listed on the year-end financial statement under “Corporate Assets and Accumulated Good Will.”
But too often, bullsh*t is the elephant in the room that blocks people from talking straight. And it’s an elephant rarely dealt with until its presence becomes too blatant to ignore. At that point, someone may finally sneeze out “bullsh*t.” However, sneezing out “bullsh*t” is seldom enough to nullify its negative impacts. Much more is required to deal with it effectively, beginning with distinguishing it from truth-telling, from candor and from straight-talk.
Until you can recognize the bullsh*t in the “truths” people tell you and understand why they resort to it, often unconsciously, you’re ill-prepared to decide whether straight-talk is even possible. Thus the first step in getting more straight-talk is better understanding of what bullsh*t is and why even the best-intentioned people use it as an ever-ready, essential personal tool. You need to know what its use accomplishes. Bullsh*t persists in organizational life because it works, and we can’t get beyond it until we understand why it’s so often necessary.
A deeper understanding of bullsh*t and more skill at spotting it can make a critical difference in your effectiveness. Doing so will require your finding ways to demystify workplace communications, to interpret the complex messages your colleagues send, whatever their claims to candor. Shortly I’ll explain why bullsh*t has become the etiquette of choice in corporate communications. Understanding that will help you initiate a more rewarding alternative -- straight-talk. This is covered in Chapters 2-4.
My goal in writing this book is to help you get more straight-talk into your work life. At a minimum, the book should make it easier for you to spot bullsh*t and avoid many of its negative consequences. It contains perspective and advice that should enhance your ability to turn pedestrian conversations into straight-talk, even when you and the people with whom you are interacting don’t think candor is possible. This is the subject of Chapters 5-7.
No doubt experience has already taught you that straight-talk is seldom easy and there are times when it would prove to be a liability. One of my aims is to help you recognize situations in which straight-talk is not in your best interest and should not be attempted. But I would also like to give you some tools you can use to put more straight-talk into your organizational life, for both the company’s and your benefit.
Developing straight-talk relationships requires self-and other-sensitivity skills that you probably already have but are not yet fully applying. There are many times when you and your colleagues would prefer straight-talk, if only you knew how to make it happen. This book should help you achieve that goal, whether you are the initiator of a conversation or the recipient. This is the subject of Chapters 8-11.
Many obstacles to straight-talk will be presented in hope you can avoid them. While the concept of straight-talk sounds simple, achieving it is complex. It is impossible to do so in a relationship steeped in distrust. For that reason it is often easier to put the principles of straight-talk to work in new relationships, before suspicions and conflicts have emerged. Those principles provide a mechanism for converting the human desire to cooperate and bond in the pursuit of common goals by building trusting relationships that endure. You’ll find some nuanced guidance for doing this in Chapter 12.
While the book addresses the world of work, it could just as easily have been written about other areas of life. I’ve only come across a few books that seriously address the topic of bullsh*t and I cite them below. In contrast to the others, this book acknowledges that there are times when bullsh*t is necessary to team effectiveness and times when bullsh*t impedes it. In every instance it’s a determination you’ll have to make. My hope is that reading these pages will help you in building honest relationships that lead to enhanced effectiveness at work and everywhere else.
I’ve never written a book that goes “Step 1, Step 2, this is how you do it.” I believe that such how-to guides inevitably oversimplify their subject and also require the author to know much more than I know about you and the real-life situations you encounter and create. At the end of the day, I believe each of us is self-invented. In these pages, I hope you will find insights, skills, and information that you can tap each day as you respond to a steady stream of people who can never tell you more of the truth that they know.
I-speak is one of the techniques I recommend that is key to forming straight-talk relationships. I hope you will learn how to initiate straight-talk, even with your boss, and when it is best avoided. Later in the book, I will introduce you to what I call truth-finding. This is a critically important process for demystifying and interpreting the words and behavior of others. Chapter 11 presents some methods for determining the meaning of behavior you don’t quite understand. Among the simple but powerful techniques is asking yourself “Why this now?” as a way of determining the intentions of others before responding to their words and actions. I also recommend the use of “active questioning” to gain insight into the motivations of others. Taken together, these techniques should enhance your ability to understand the other person’s truth, making it far easier for you to respond appropriately. These are tools that you may find yourself using in all your important relationships from now on. Mostly I will give you a context for evaluating and responding to others, with a few prescriptions along the way. It’s up to you to construct your own plan for deciphering and responding to the messages that others send.
Finally, a word of warning. Like it or not, you’re going to have to make peace with an unpleasant fact. The vast majority of work-life interactions require that you not call people on their bullsh*t. Why? Because, as I am about to explain, bullsh*t often serves important workplace functions. The open-ended question you’re going to have to ask is “When is it possible to move beyond bullsh*t?” to reap the many benefits straight-talk can offer.